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by Henry David Thoreau
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Title: On the Duty of Civil Disobedience
Author: Henry David Thoreau
Release Date: 12 June 2004 [EBook #71]
[Date last updated: March 1, 2005]
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On the Duty of Civil Disobedience
by Henry David Thoreau
[1849, original title: Resistance to Civil Government]
I heartily accept the motto, "That government is best
which governs least"; and I should like to see it acted up
to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally
amounts to this, which also I believe--"That government is
best which governs not at all"; and when men are prepared
for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.
Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments
are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient.
The objections which have been brought against a standing army,
and they are many and weighty, and deserve to prevail,
may also at last be brought against a standing government.
The standing army is only an arm of the standing government.
The government itself, which is only the mode which the people
have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused
and perverted before the people can act through it. Witness the
present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals
using the standing government as their tool; for in the outset,
the people would not have consented to this measure.
This American government--what is it but a tradition,
though a recent one, endeavoring to transmit itself
unimpaired to posterity, but each instant losing some of its
integrity? It has not the vitality and force of a single
living man; for a single man can bend it to his will. It is
a sort of wooden gun to the people themselves. But it is
not the less necessary for this; for the people must have
some complicated machinery or other, and hear its din, to
satisfy that idea of government which they have.
Governments show thus how successfully men can be imposed
upon, even impose on themselves, for their own advantage.
It is excellent, we must all allow. Yet this government
never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity
with which it got out of its way. _It_ does not keep the
country free. _It_ does not settle the West. _It_ does not
educate. The character inherent in the American people has
done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done
somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got in
its way. For government is an expedient, by which men would
fain succeed in letting one another alone; and, as has been
said, when it is most expedient, the governed are most let
alone by it. Trade and commerce, if they were not made of
india-rubber, would never manage to bounce over obstacles
which legislators are continually putting in their way;
and if one were to judge these men wholly by the effects of
their actions and not partly by their intentions, they would
deserve to be classed and punished with those mischievious
persons who put obstructions on the railroads.
But, to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those
who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not
_at once_ no government, but at once a better government.
Let every man make known what kind of government would command
his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.
After all, the practical reason why, when the power is
once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted,
and for a long period continue, to rule is not because they
are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems
fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the
strongest. But a government in which the majority rule in
all cases can not be based on justice, even as far as men
understand it. Can there not be a government in which the
majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but
conscience?--in which majorities decide only those questions
to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the
citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign
his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a
conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and
subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a
respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only
obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any
time what I think right. It is truly enough said that a
corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of
conscientious men is a corporation _with_ a conscience.
Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their
respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the
agents on injustice. A common and natural result of an
undue respect for the law is, that you may see a file of
soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates,
powder-monkeys, and all, marching in admirable order over
hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against
their common sense and consciences, which makes it very
steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart.
They have no doubt that it is a damnable business in
which they are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined.
Now, what are they? Men at all? or small movable forts and
magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power?
Visit the Navy Yard, and behold a marine, such a man as an
American government can make, or such as it can make a man
with its black arts--a mere shadow and reminiscence of
humanity, a man laid out alive and standing, and already,
as one may say, buried under arms with funeral accompaniment,
though it may be,
"Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note,
As his corse to the rampart we hurried;
Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot
O'er the grave where our hero was buried."
The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly,
but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army,
and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, etc.
In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the
judgement or of the moral sense; but they put themselves
on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men
can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well.
Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt.
They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs.
Yet such as these even are commonly esteemed good citizens.
Others--as most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers,
and office-holders--serve the state chiefly with their heads;
and, as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as
likely to serve the devil, without _intending_ it, as God.
A very few--as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the
great sense, and _men_--serve the state with their consciences
also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and
they are commonly treated as enemies by it. A wise man will
only be useful as a man, and will not submit to be "clay,"
and "stop a hole to keep the wind away," but leave that
office to his dust at least:
"I am too high born to be propertied,
To be a second at control,
Or useful serving-man and instrument
To any sovereign state throughout the world."
He who gives himself entirely to his fellow men appears
to them useless and selfish; but he who gives himself
partially to them in pronounced a benefactor and philanthropist.
How does it become a man to behave toward the American
government today? I answer, that he cannot without disgrace
be associated with it. I cannot for an instant recognize
that political organization as _my_ government which is the
_slave's_ government also.
All men recognize the right of revolution; that is,
the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist,
the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are
great and unendurable. But almost all say that such is not
the case now. But such was the case, they think, in the
Revolution of '75. If one were to tell me that this was a
bad government because it taxed certain foreign commodities
brought to its ports, it is most probable that I should
not make an ado about it, for I can do without them.
All machines have their friction; and possibly this does
enough good to counter-balance the evil. At any rate, it is
a great evil to make a stir about it. But when the friction
comes to have its machine, and oppression and robbery are
organized, I say, let us not have such a machine any longer.
In other words, when a sixth of the population of a nation
which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves,
and a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a
foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it
is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize.
What makes this duty the more urgent is that fact that the
country so overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army.
Paley, a common authority with many on moral questions,
in his chapter on the "Duty of Submission to Civil
Government," resolves all civil obligation into expediency;
and he proceeds to say that "so long as the interest of the
whole society requires it, that is, so long as the established
government cannot be resisted or changed without public
inconvenience, it is the will of God . . . that the
established government be obeyed--and no longer. This
principle being admitted, the justice of every particular
case of resistance is reduced to a computation of the
quantity of the danger and grievance on the one side, and of
the probability and expense of redressing it on the other."
Of this, he says, every man shall judge for himself.
But Paley appears never to have contemplated those cases
to which the rule of expediency does not apply, in which
a people, as well as an individual, must do justice, cost
what it may. If I have unjustly wrested a plank from a
drowning man, I must restore it to him though I drown myself.
This, according to Paley, would be inconvenient.
But he that would save his life, in such a case, shall lose it.
This people must cease to hold slaves, and to make war
on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people.
In their practice, nations agree with Paley; but does
anyone think that Massachusetts does exactly what is right
at the present crisis?
"A drab of stat,
a cloth-o'-silver slut,
To have her train borne up,
and her soul trail in the dirt."
Practically speaking, the opponents to a reform in
Massachusetts are not a hundred thousand politicians at the
South, but a hundred thousand merchants and farmers here,
who are more interested in commerce and agriculture than
they are in humanity, and are not prepared to do justice to
the slave and to Mexico, _cost what it may_. I quarrel not
with far-off foes, but with those who, near at home,
co-operate with, and do the bidding of, those far away, and
without whom the latter would be harmless. We are
accustomed to say, that the mass of men are unprepared; but
improvement is slow, because the few are not as materially
wiser or better than the many. It is not so important that
many should be good as you, as that there be some absolute
goodness somewhere; for that will leaven the whole lump.
There are thousands who are _in opinion_ opposed to slavery
and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end
to them; who, esteeming themselves children of Washington
and Franklin, sit down with their hands in their pockets,
and say that they know not what to do, and do nothing; who
even postpone the question of freedom to the question of
free trade, and quietly read the prices-current along with
the latest advices from Mexico, after dinner, and, it may
be, fall asleep over them both. What is the price-current
of an honest man and patriot today? They hesitate, and they
regret, and sometimes they petition; but they do nothing in
earnest and with effect. They will wait, well disposed, for
other to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have it to
regret. At most, they give up only a cheap vote, and a
feeble countenance and Godspeed, to the right, as it goes by
them. There are nine hundred and ninety-nine patrons of
virtue to one virtuous man. But it is easier to deal with
the real possessor of a thing than with the temporary
guardian of it.
All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or
backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with
right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally
accompanies it. The character of the voters is not staked.
I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not
vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am
willing to leave it to the majority. Its obligation,
therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. Even _voting
for the right_ is _doing_ nothing for it. It is only
expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail.
A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance,
nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority.
There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men.
When the majority shall at length vote for the abolition of
slavery, it will be because they are indifferent to slavery,
or because there is but little slavery left to be abolished
by their vote. _They_ will then be the only slaves. Only _his_
vote can hasten the abolition of slavery who asserts his own
freedom by his vote.
I hear of a convention to be held at Baltimore, or
elsewhere, for the selection of a candidate for the
Presidency, made up chiefly of editors, and men who are
politicians by profession; but I think, what is it to any
independent, intelligent, and respectable man what decision
they may come to? Shall we not have the advantage of this
wisdom and honesty, nevertheless? Can we not count upon
some independent votes? Are there not many individuals in
the country who do not attend conventions? But no: I find
that the respectable man, so called, has immediately drifted
from his position, and despairs of his country, when his
country has more reasons to despair of him. He forthwith
adopts one of the candidates thus selected as the only
_available_ one, thus proving that he is himself _available_
for any purposes of the demagogue. His vote is of no more
worth than that of any unprincipled foreigner or hireling
native, who may have been bought. O for a man who is a man,
and, as my neighbor says, has a bone in his back which you
cannot pass your hand through! Our statistics are at fault:
the population has been returned too large. How many _men_
are there to a square thousand miles in the country?
Hardly one. Does not America offer any inducement for men
to settle here? The American has dwindled into an Odd
Fellow--one who may be known by the development of his organ
of gregariousness, and a manifest lack of intellect and
cheerful self-reliance; whose first and chief concern, on
coming into the world, is to see that the almshouses are in
good repair; and, before yet he has lawfully donned the
virile garb, to collect a fund to the support of the widows
and orphans that may be; who, in short, ventures to live
only by the aid of the Mutual Insurance company, which has
promised to bury him decently.
It is not a man's duty, as a matter of course, to
devote himself to the eradication of any, even to most
enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns
to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his
hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to
give it practically his support. If I devote myself to
other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at
least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man's
shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his
contemplations too. See what gross inconsistency is tolerated.
I have heard some of my townsmen say, "I should like to
have them order me out to help put down an insurrection
of the slaves, or to march to Mexico--see if I would go";
and yet these very men have each, directly by their
allegiance, and so indirectly, at least, by their money,
furnished a substitute. The soldier is applauded who
refuses to serve in an unjust war by those who do not refuse
to sustain the unjust government which makes the war;
is applauded by those whose own act and authority he disregards
and sets at naught; as if the state were penitent to that
degree that it hired one to scourge it while it sinned, but
not to that degree that it left off sinning for a moment.
Thus, under the name of Order and Civil Government, we are
all made at last to pay homage to and support our own meanness.
After the first blush of sin comes its indifference; and from
immoral it becomes, as it were, unmoral, and not quite unnecessary
to that life which we have made.
The broadest and most prevalent error requires the most
disinterested virtue to sustain it. The slight reproach to
which the virtue of patriotism is commonly liable, the noble
are most likely to incur. Those who, while they disapprove
of the character and measures of a government, yield to it
their allegiance and support are undoubtedly its most
conscientious supporters, and so frequently the most serious
obstacles to reform. Some are petitioning the State to
dissolve the Union, to disregard the requisitions of the
President. Why do they not dissolve it themselves--the
union between themselves and the State--and refuse to pay
their quota into its treasury? Do not they stand in the same
relation to the State that the State does to the Union? And
have not the same reasons prevented the State from resisting
the Union which have prevented them from resisting the State?
How can a man be satisfied to entertain an opinion merely,
and enjoy _it_? Is there any enjoyment in it, if his
opinion is that he is aggrieved? If you are cheated out of
a single dollar by your neighbor, you do not rest satisfied
with knowing you are cheated, or with saying that you are
cheated, or even with petitioning him to pay you your due;
but you take effectual steps at once to obtain the full
amount, and see to it that you are never cheated again.
Action from principle, the perception and the performance of
right, changes things and relations; it is essentially
revolutionary, and does not consist wholly with anything
which was. It not only divided States and churches, it
divides families; ay, it divides the _individual_, separating
the diabolical in him from the divine.
Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or
shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have
succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men,
generally, under such a government as this, think that they
ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to
alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the
remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of
the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil.
_It_ makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and
provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority?
Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not
encourage its citizens to put out its faults, and _do_ better
than it would have them? Why does it always crucify Christ and
excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington
and Franklin rebels?
One would think, that a deliberate and practical denial
of its authority was the only offense never contemplated by
its government; else, why has it not assigned its definite,
its suitable and proportionate, penalty? If a man who has
no property refuses but once to earn nine shillings for the
State, he is put in prison for a period unlimited by any law
that I know, and determined only by the discretion of those
who put him there; but if he should steal ninety times nine
shillings from the State, he is soon permitted to go at
If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of
the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance
it will wear smooth--certainly the machine will wear out.
If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a
crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider
whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if
it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent
of injustice to another, then I say, break the law. Let
your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I
have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself
to the wrong which I condemn.
As for adopting the ways of the State has provided for
remedying the evil, I know not of such ways. They take too
much time, and a man's life will be gone. I have other
affairs to attend to. I came into this world, not chiefly
to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it,
be it good or bad. A man has not everything to do, but
something; and because he cannot do _everything_, it is
not necessary that he should be doing _something_ wrong. It is
not my business to be petitioning the Governor
or the Legislature any more than it is theirs to petition me;
and if they should not hear my petition, what should I do then?
But in this case the State has provided no way: its very
Constitution is the evil. This may seem to be harsh and
stubborn and unconcilliatory; but it is to treat with the
utmost kindness and consideration the only spirit that can
appreciate or deserves it. So is all change for the better,
like birth and death, which convulse the body.
I do not hesitate to say, that those who call themselves
Abolitionists should at once effectually withdraw
their support, both in person and property, from the
government of Massachusetts, and not wait till they
constitute a majority of one, before they suffer the right
to prevail through them. I think that it is enough if they
have God on their side, without waiting for that other one.
Moreover, any man more right than his neighbors constitutes
a majority of one already.
I meet this American government, or its representative,
the State government, directly, and face to face, once a
year--no more--in the person of its tax-gatherer; this is
the only mode in which a man situated as I am necessarily
meets it; and it then says distinctly, Recognize me; and
the simplest, the most effectual, and, in the present
posture of affairs, the indispensablest mode of treating
with it on this head, of expressing your little satisfaction
with and love for it, is to deny it then. My civil
neighbor, the tax-gatherer, is the very man I have to deal
with--for it is, after all, with men and not with parchment
that I quarrel--and he has voluntarily chosen to be an agent
of the government. How shall he ever know well that he is
and does as an officer of the government, or as a man,
until he is obliged to consider whether he will treat me,
his neighbor, for whom he has respect, as a neighbor and
well-disposed man, or as a maniac and disturber of the peace,
and see if he can get over this obstruction to his
neighborliness without a ruder and more impetuous thought or
speech corresponding with his action. I know this well,
that if one thousand, if one hundred, if ten men whom I
could name--if ten _honest_ men only--ay, if _one_ HONEST man,
in this State of Massachusetts, _ceasing to hold slaves_, were
actually to withdraw from this co-partnership, and be locked
up in the county jail therefor, it would be the abolition of
slavery in America. For it matters not how small the
beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done
forever. But we love better to talk about it: that we say
is our mission. Reform keeps many scores of newspapers in
its service, but not one man. If my esteemed neighbor, the
State's ambassador, who will devote his days to the
settlement of the question of human rights in the Council
Chamber, instead of being threatened with the prisons of
Carolina, were to sit down the prisoner of Massachusetts,
that State which is so anxious to foist the sin of slavery
upon her sister--though at present she can discover only an
act of inhospitality to be the ground of a quarrel with
her--the Legislature would not wholly waive the subject of
the following winter.
Under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true
place for a just man is also a prison. The proper place
today, the only place which Massachusetts has provided for
her freer and less despondent spirits, is in her prisons, to
be put out and locked out of the State by her own act, as
they have already put themselves out by their principles.
It is there that the fugitive slave, and the Mexican
prisoner on parole, and the Indian come to plead the wrongs
of his race should find them; on that separate but more free
and honorable ground, where the State places those who are
not _with_ her, but _against_ her--the only house in a slave
State in which a free man can abide with honor. If any
think that their influence would be lost there, and their
voices no longer afflict the ear of the State, that they
would not be as an enemy within its walls, they do not know
by how much truth is stronger than error, nor how much more
eloquently and effectively he can combat injustice who has
experienced a little in his own person. Cast your whole
vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.
A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority;
it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when
it clogs by its whole weight. If the alternative is to keep
all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the
State will not hesitate which to choose. If a thousand men
were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be
a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them,
and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent
blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable
revolution, if any such is possible. If the tax-gatherer,
or any other public officer, asks me, as one has done, "But
what shall I do?" my answer is, "If you really wish to do
anything, resign your office." When the subject has refused
allegiance, and the officer has resigned from office, then
the revolution is accomplished. But even suppose blood
should flow. Is there not a sort of blood shed when the
conscience is wounded? Through this wound a man's real
manhood and immortality flow out, and he bleeds to an
everlasting death. I see this blood flowing now.
I have contemplated the imprisonment of the offender,
rather than the seizure of his goods--though both will serve
the same purpose--because they who assert the purest right,
and consequently are most dangerous to a corrupt State,
commonly have not spent much time in accumulating property.
To such the State renders comparatively small service, and a
slight tax is wont to appear exorbitant, particularly if
they are obliged to earn it by special labor with their hands.
If there were one who lived wholly without the use of money,
the State itself would hesitate to demand it of him.
But the rich man--not to make any invidious
comparison--is always sold to the institution which makes
him rich. Absolutely speaking, the more money, the less
virtue; for money comes between a man and his objects, and
obtains them for him; it was certainly no great virtue to
obtain it. It puts to rest many questions which he would
otherwise be taxed to answer; while the only new question
which it puts is the hard but superfluous one, how to spend
it. Thus his moral ground is taken from under his feet.
The opportunities of living are diminished in proportion as
that are called the "means" are increased. The best thing a
man can do for his culture when he is rich is to endeavor to
carry out those schemes which he entertained when he was
poor. Christ answered the Herodians according to their
condition. "Show me the tribute-money," said he--and one
took a penny out of his pocket--if you use money which has
the image of Caesar on it, and which he has made current and
valuable, that is, _if you are men of the State_, and gladly
enjoy the advantages of Caesar's government, then pay him
back some of his own when he demands it. "Render therefore
to Caesar that which is Caesar's and to God those things
which are God's"--leaving them no wiser than before as to
which was which; for they did not wish to know.
When I converse with the freest of my neighbors, I perceive that,
whatever they may say about the magnitude and seriousness
of the question, and their regard for the public tranquillity,
the long and the short of the matter is, that they cannot
spare the protection of the existing government,
and they dread the consequences to their property and
families of disobedience to it. For my own part, I should
not like to think that I ever rely on the protection of the
State. But, if I deny the authority of the State when it
presents its tax bill, it will soon take and waste all my
property, and so harass me and my children without end.
This is hard. This makes it impossible for a man to live
honestly, and at the same time comfortably, in outward
respects. It will not be worth the while to accumulate
property; that would be sure to go again. You must hire or
squat somewhere, and raise but a small crop, and eat that
soon. You must live within yourself, and depend upon
yourself always tucked up and ready for a start, and not
have many affairs. A man may grow rich in Turkey even, if
he will be in all respects a good subject of the Turkish
government. Confucius said: "If a state is governed by the
principles of reason, poverty and misery are subjects of
shame; if a state is not governed by the principles of
reason, riches and honors are subjects of shame." No: until
I want the protection of Massachusetts to be extended to me
in some distant Southern port, where my liberty is
endangered, or until I am bent solely on building up an
estate at home by peaceful enterprise, I can afford to
refuse allegiance to Massachusetts, and her right to my
property and life. It costs me less in every sense to incur
the penalty of disobedience to the State than it would to obey.
I should feel as if I were worth less in that case.
Some years ago, the State met me in behalf of the
Church, and commanded me to pay a certain sum toward the
support of a clergyman whose preaching my father attended,
but never I myself. "Pay," it said, "or be locked up in the
jail." I declined to pay. But, unfortunately, another man
saw fit to pay it. I did not see why the schoolmaster
should be taxed to support the priest, and not the priest
the schoolmaster; for I was not the State's schoolmaster,
but I supported myself by voluntary subscription. I did not
see why the lyceum should not present its tax bill, and have
the State to back its demand, as well as the Church.
However, at the request of the selectmen, I condescended to
make some such statement as this in writing: "Know all men
by these presents, that I, Henry Thoreau, do not wish to be
regarded as a member of any incorporated society which I
have not joined." This I gave to the town clerk; and he has
it. The State, having thus learned that I did not wish to be
regarded as a member of that church, has never made a like
demand on me since; though it said that it must adhere to
its original presumption that time. If I had known how to
name them, I should then have signed off in detail from all
the societies which I never signed on to; but I did not know
where to find such a complete list.
I have paid no poll tax for six years. I was put into
a jail once on this account, for one night; and, as I stood
considering the walls of solid stone, two or three feet
thick, the door of wood and iron, a foot thick, and the iron
grating which strained the light, I could not help being
struck with the foolishness of that institution which
treated me as if I were mere flesh and blood and bones, to
be locked up. I wondered that it should have concluded at
length that this was the best use it could put me to, and
had never thought to avail itself of my services in some
way. I saw that, if there was a wall of stone between me
and my townsmen, there was a still more difficult one to
climb or break through before they could get to be as free
as I was. I did not for a moment feel confined, and the
walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar. I felt as
if I alone of all my townsmen had paid my tax. They plainly
did not know how to treat me, but behaved like persons who
are underbred. In every threat and in every compliment
there was a blunder; for they thought that my chief desire
was to stand the other side of that stone wall. I could not
but smile to see how industriously they locked the door on
my meditations, which followed them out again without let or
hindrance, and _they_ were really all that was dangerous.
As they could not reach me, they had resolved to punish
my body; just as boys, if they cannot come at some person
against whom they have a spite, will abuse his dog. I saw
that the State was half-witted, that it was timid as a lone
woman with her silver spoons, and that it did not know its
friends from its foes, and I lost all my remaining respect
for it, and pitied it.
Thus the state never intentionally confronts a man's
sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses.
It is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with
superior physical strength. I was not born to be forced.
I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the
strongest. What force has a multitude? They only can force
me who obey a higher law than I. They force me to become
like themselves. I do not hear of _men_ being _forced_ to
live this way or that by masses of men. What sort of life
were that to live? When I meet a government which says to me,
"Your money or your life," why should I be in haste to give
it my money? It may be in a great strait, and not know what
to do: I cannot help that. It must help itself; do as I do.
It is not worth the while to snivel about it. I am not
responsible for the successful working of the machinery of
society. I am not the son of the engineer. I perceive
that, when an acorn and a chestnut fall side by side, the
one does not remain inert to make way for the other, but
both obey their own laws, and spring and grow and flourish
as best they can, till one, perchance, overshadows and
destroys the other. If a plant cannot live according to
nature, it dies; and so a man.
The night in prison was novel and interesting enough.
The prisoners in their shirtsleeves were enjoying a chat and
the evening air in the doorway, when I entered. But the
jailer said, "Come, boys, it is time to lock up"; and so
they dispersed, and I heard the sound of their steps
returning into the hollow apartments. My room-mate was
introduced to me by the jailer as "a first-rate fellow and
clever man." When the door was locked, he showed me where
to hang my hat, and how he managed matters there. The rooms
were whitewashed once a month; and this one, at least, was
the whitest, most simply furnished, and probably neatest
apartment in town. He naturally wanted to know where I came
from, and what brought me there; and, when I had told him, I
asked him in my turn how he came there, presuming him to be
an honest man, of course; and as the world goes, I believe he
was. "Why," said he, "they accuse me of burning a barn; but
I never did it." As near as I could discover, he had
probably gone to bed in a barn when drunk, and smoked his
pipe there; and so a barn was burnt. He had the reputation
of being a clever man, had been there some three months
waiting for his trial to come on, and would have to wait as
much longer; but he was quite domesticated and contented,
since he got his board for nothing, and thought that he was
He occupied one window, and I the other; and I saw that
if one stayed there long, his principal business would be to
look out the window. I had soon read all the tracts that
were left there, and examined where former prisoners had
broken out, and where a grate had been sawed off, and heard
the history of the various occupants of that room; for I
found that even there there was a history and a gossip which
never circulated beyond the walls of the jail. Probably
this is the only house in the town where verses are
composed, which are afterward printed in a circular form,
but not published. I was shown quite a long list of young
men who had been detected in an attempt to escape, who
avenged themselves by singing them.
I pumped my fellow-prisoner as dry as I could, for fear
I should never see him again; but at length he showed me
which was my bed, and left me to blow out the lamp.
It was like travelling into a far country, such as I
had never expected to behold, to lie there for one night.
It seemed to me that I never had heard the town clock strike
before, nor the evening sounds of the village; for we slept
with the windows open, which were inside the grating. It
was to see my native village in the light of the Middle
Ages, and our Concord was turned into a Rhine stream, and
visions of knights and castles passed before me. They were
the voices of old burghers that I heard in the streets. I
was an involuntary spectator and auditor of whatever was
done and said in the kitchen of the adjacent village inn--a
wholly new and rare experience to me. It was a closer view
of my native town. I was fairly inside of it. I never had
seen its institutions before. This is one of its peculiar
institutions; for it is a shire town. I began to comprehend
what its inhabitants were about.
In the morning, our breakfasts were put through the hole
in the door, in small oblong-square tin pans, made to fit,
and holding a pint of chocolate, with brown bread, and
an iron spoon. When they called for the vessels again,
I was green enough to return what bread I had left, but my
comrade seized it, and said that I should lay that up for
lunch or dinner. Soon after he was let out to work at
haying in a neighboring field, whither he went every day,
and would not be back till noon; so he bade me good day,
saying that he doubted if he should see me again.
When I came out of prison--for some one interfered, and
paid that tax--I did not perceive that great changes had
taken place on the common, such as he observed who went in a
youth and emerged a gray-headed man; and yet a change had
come to my eyes come over the scene--the town, and State,
and country, greater than any that mere time could effect.
I saw yet more distinctly the State in which I lived. I saw
to what extent the people among whom I lived could be
trusted as good neighbors and friends; that their friendship
was for summer weather only; that they did not greatly
propose to do right; that they were a distinct race from me
by their prejudices and superstitions, as the Chinamen and
Malays are; that in their sacrifices to humanity they ran no
risks, not even to their property; that after all they were
not so noble but they treated the thief as he had treated
them, and hoped, by a certain outward observance and a few
prayers, and by walking in a particular straight though
useless path from time to time, to save their souls.
This may be to judge my neighbors harshly; for I believe
that many of them are not aware that they have such an
institution as the jail in their village.
It was formerly the custom in our village, when a poor
debtor came out of jail, for his acquaintances to salute
him, looking through their fingers, which were crossed to
represent the jail window, "How do ye do?" My neighbors did
not thus salute me, but first looked at me, and then at one
another, as if I had returned from a long journey. I was
put into jail as I was going to the shoemaker's to get a
shoe which was mended. When I was let out the next morning,
I proceeded to finish my errand, and, having put on my
mended shoe, joined a huckleberry party, who were impatient
to put themselves under my conduct; and in half an hour--for
the horse was soon tackled--was in the midst of a
huckleberry field, on one of our highest hills, two miles
off, and then the State was nowhere to be seen.
This is the whole history of "My Prisons."
I have never declined paying the highway tax, because I
am as desirous of being a good neighbor as I am of being a
bad subject; and as for supporting schools, I am doing my
part to educate my fellow countrymen now. It is for no
particular item in the tax bill that I refuse to pay it. I
simply wish to refuse allegiance to the State, to withdraw
and stand aloof from it effectually. I do not care to trace
the course of my dollar, if I could, till it buys a man or a
musket to shoot one with--the dollar is innocent--but I am
concerned to trace the effects of my allegiance. In fact, I
quietly declare war with the State, after my fashion, though
I will still make use and get what advantages of her I can,
as is usual in such cases.
If others pay the tax which is demanded of me, from a
sympathy with the State, they do but what they have already
done in their own case, or rather they abet injustice to a
greater extent than the State requires. If they pay the tax
from a mistaken interest in the individual taxed, to save
his property, or prevent his going to jail, it is because
they have not considered wisely how far they let their
private feelings interfere with the public good.
This, then, is my position at present. But one cannot be too
much on his guard in such a case, lest his actions be biased
by obstinacy or an undue regard for the opinions of men.
Let him see that he does only what belongs to himself and
to the hour.
I think sometimes, Why, this people mean well, they are
only ignorant; they would do better if they knew how: why
give your neighbors this pain to treat you as they are not
inclined to? But I think again, This is no reason why I
should do as they do, or permit others to suffer much
greater pain of a different kind. Again, I sometimes say to
myself, When many millions of men, without heat, without ill
will, without personal feelings of any kind, demand of you a
few shillings only, without the possibility, such is their
constitution, of retracting or altering their present
demand, and without the possibility, on your side, of appeal
to any other millions, why expose yourself to this
overwhelming brute force? You do not resist cold and
hunger, the winds and the waves, thus obstinately; you
quietly submit to a thousand similar necessities. You do
not put your head into the fire. But just in proportion as
I regard this as not wholly a brute force, but partly a
human force, and consider that I have relations to those
millions as to so many millions of men, and not of mere
brute or inanimate things, I see that appeal is possible,
first and instantaneously, from them to the Maker of them,
and, secondly, from them to themselves. But if I put my
head deliberately into the fire, there is no appeal to fire
or to the Maker of fire, and I have only myself to blame.
If I could convince myself that I have any right to be
satisfied with men as they are, and to treat them
accordingly, and not according, in some respects, to my
requisitions and expectations of what they and I ought to
be, then, like a good Mussulman and fatalist, I should
endeavor to be satisfied with things as they are, and say it
is the will of God. And, above all, there is this
difference between resisting this and a purely brute or
natural force, that I can resist this with some effect; but
I cannot expect, like Orpheus, to change the nature of the
rocks and trees and beasts.
I do not wish to quarrel with any man or nation. I do
not wish to split hairs, to make fine distinctions, or set
myself up as better than my neighbors. I seek rather, I may
say, even an excuse for conforming to the laws of the land.
I am but too ready to conform to them. Indeed, I have
reason to suspect myself on this head; and each year, as the
tax-gatherer comes round, I find myself disposed to review
the acts and position of the general and State governments,
and the spirit of the people to discover a pretext for conformity.
"We must affect our country as our parents,
And if at any time we alienate
Our love or industry from doing it honor,
We must respect effects and teach the soul
Matter of conscience and religion,
And not desire of rule or benefit."
I believe that the State will soon be able to take all my
work of this sort out of my hands, and then I shall be no
better patriot than my fellow-countrymen. Seen from a lower
point of view, the Constitution, with all its faults, is
very good; the law and the courts are very respectable; even
this State and this American government are, in many
respects, very admirable, and rare things, to be thankful
for, such as a great many have described them; seen from a
higher still, and the highest, who shall say what they are,
or that they are worth looking at or thinking of at all?
However, the government does not concern me much, and I shall
bestow the fewest possible thoughts on it. It is not many
moments that I live under a government, even in this world.
If a man is thought-free, fancy-free, imagination-free,
that which _is not_ never for a long time appearing _to be_
to him, unwise rulers or reformers cannot fatally interrupt him.
I know that most men think differently from myself; but
those whose lives are by profession devoted to the study of
these or kindred subjects content me as little as any.
Statesmen and legislators, standing so completely within the
institution, never distinctly and nakedly behold it.
They speak of moving society, but have no resting-place
without it. They may be men of a certain experience and
discrimination, and have no doubt invented ingenious and
even useful systems, for which we sincerely thank them;
but all their wit and usefulness lie within certain not very
wide limits. They are wont to forget that the world is not
governed by policy and expediency. Webster never goes behind
government, and so cannot speak with authority about it.
His words are wisdom to those legislators who contemplate no
essential reform in the existing government; but for thinkers,
and those who legislate for all time, he never once glances
at the subject. I know of those whose serene and wise
speculations on this theme would soon reveal the limits
of his mind's range and hospitality. Yet, compared with
the cheap professions of most reformers, and the still
cheaper wisdom and eloquence of politicians in general,
his are almost the only sensible and valuable words,
and we thank Heaven for him. Comparatively, he is always
strong, original, and, above all, practical. Still, his
quality is not wisdom, but prudence. The lawyer's truth
is not Truth, but consistency or a consistent expediency.
Truth is always in harmony with herself, and is not
concerned chiefly to reveal the justice that may consist
with wrong-doing. He well deserves to be called, as he has
been called, the Defender of the Constitution. There are
really no blows to be given him but defensive ones. He is
not a leader, but a follower. His leaders are the men of
'87. "I have never made an effort," he says, "and never
propose to make an effort; I have never countenanced an
effort, and never mean to countenance an effort, to disturb
the arrangement as originally made, by which various States
came into the Union." Still thinking of the sanction which
the Constitution gives to slavery, he says, "Because it was
part of the original compact--let it stand."
Notwithstanding his special acuteness and ability, he is
unable to take a fact out of its merely political relations,
and behold it as it lies absolutely to be disposed of by the
intellect--what, for instance, it behooves a man to do here
in American today with regard to slavery--but ventures, or
is driven, to make some such desperate answer to the
following, while professing to speak absolutely, and as a
private man--from which what new and singular of social
duties might be inferred? "The manner," says he, "in which
the governments of the States where slavery exists are to
regulate it is for their own consideration, under the
responsibility to their constituents, to the general laws of
propriety, humanity, and justice, and to God. Associations
formed elsewhere, springing from a feeling of humanity, or
any other cause, have nothing whatever to do with it. They
have never received any encouragement from me and they never
will." [These extracts have been inserted since the lecture
was read -HDT]
They who know of no purer sources of truth, who have
traced up its stream no higher, stand, and wisely stand, by
the Bible and the Constitution, and drink at it there with
reverence and humanity; but they who behold where it comes
trickling into this lake or that pool, gird up their loins
once more, and continue their pilgrimage toward its
No man with a genius for legislation has appeared in America.
They are rare in the history of the world. There are orators,
politicians, and eloquent men, by the thousand; but the
speaker has not yet opened his mouth to speak who is
capable of settling the much-vexed questions of the day.
We love eloquence for its own sake, and not for any truth
which it may utter, or any heroism it may inspire. Our
legislators have not yet learned the comparative value of
free trade and of freedom, of union, and of rectitude, to a
nation. They have no genius or talent for comparatively
humble questions of taxation and finance, commerce and
manufactures and agriculture. If we were left solely to the
wordy wit of legislators in Congress for our guidance,
uncorrected by the seasonable experience and the effectual
complaints of the people, America would not long retain her
rank among the nations. For eighteen hundred years, though
perchance I have no right to say it, the New Testament has
been written; yet where is the legislator who has wisdom and
practical talent enough to avail himself of the light which
it sheds on the science of legislation.
The authority of government, even such as I am willing
to submit to--for I will cheerfully obey those who know and
can do better than I, and in many things even those who
neither know nor can do so well--is still an impure one: to
be strictly just, it must have the sanction and consent of
the governed. It can have no pure right over my person and
property but what I concede to it. The progress from an
absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a
democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the
individual. Even the Chinese philosopher was wise enough to
regard the individual as the basis of the empire. Is a
democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible
in government? Is it not possible to take a step further
towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man? There
will never be a really free and enlightened State until the
State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and
independent power, from which all its own power and
authority are derived, and treats him accordingly. I please
myself with imagining a State at last which can afford to be
just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as
a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with
its own repose if a few were to live aloof from it, not
meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the
duties of neighbors and fellow men. A State which bore this
kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it
ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and
glorious State, which I have also imagined, but not yet
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